I would have liked to see Crimson Peak in theaters the night it opened, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t get a chance to watch it until Halloween, which is a pretty good day to watch a Gothic film anyway!
I avoided reading any reviews of the film before watching it so I could be as unbiased as possible when forming my opinions on it, but I did have a few small preconceptions floating in the back of my mind: quotes from Del Toro I had read before the film opened about how Crimson Peak would be “feminist” and would turn some gender conventions on its head. From the trailer, it looked like an ultra-conventional Gothic that might not add a whole lot of “newness” to the genre, but I was excited about the prospect of a traditionally Gothic film that gave its female characters depth and agency. Alas, my hopes were dashed.
First of all, the film was just as formulaically Gothic as it appeared in the trailers and clips I had seen beforehand. So much so, in fact, that the people I watched it with (who have no particular interest in the Gothic) said something along the lines of “I feel like I’ve seen that film before / read that novel before.” And I felt the same way.
The basic story formula seemed to be Bluebeard + The Fall of the House of Usher + Rebecca + a slew of other Gothic stories and tropes, so it did not add a lot of novelty or innovation to the genre in this way. The metaphors I found to be heavy-handed as well; there is not much thrill in investigating visual motifs when their meanings are so blatantly laid out for you.
I was also disappointed to see that the film was not only not feminist, but actually seemed to reinforce damaging stereotypes. The two female leads were almost painfully archetypical: Edith, though bookish and “smart”, is a naïve waif who doesn’t suspect ill of anyone (including the sketchy Thomas Sharpe, who raises suspicion in all the men around Edith); and Thomas’s sister Lucille is the calculating vamp archetype dialed up a few notches to pure evil. Like many fairytales, the mother figures are absent, but they too seem to have an aura of evil surrounding them – even the ghost of Edith’s mother at the beginning of the film is unnecessary terrifying (seriously, who would do that to their child?).
While the women fall prey to the feminine flaws of their archetypes (gullibility, misplaced trust, and weakness for Edith; jealousy, lust, and psychopathy (?) for Lucille) all of the men come out of the film untarnished. Edith’s admirer, Dr. McMichael, swoops in to save her at the end of the film and comes out a hero. If it weren’t for his sleuthing, journey to England, and instructions for men at the post office to follow him to the mansion once the storm passed, Edith would have not survived the film. Thomas emerges as somewhat of a hero as well, “redeemed” in the end by his sacrifices and real love for Edith – and although he is just as responsible and entangled in horrible crimes as his sister, we are pushed to feel sympathy for him and place all of the blame on Lucille.
Ah, Lucille. Jessica Chastain is given very few opportunities to humanize this character, but she jumps on them with such determination, it is one of the redeeming qualities of the movie. In those moments, she is able to lend such great pain and soul to her character that it almost becomes possible to empathize with her – which says a lot, given how her part has been written.
Despite its shortcomings in expected feminism, novelty, and overall depth and soulfulness of the film, I do think there is always value in meticulously detailed period pieces like Crimson Peak. The sets and costumes in the production are really the stars. Every frame of the film looks sumptuous and it is beautiful to watch – I actually think I would enjoy the film more if I turned the sound off and simply absorbed it visually. The plot would be easy enough to follow without sound, in fact the dialogue only seems to encumber the film and restrict its interpretation.
If you’re impressed by the production, you might be interested in The Art of Darkness, a sort of “making of” book which takes an in-depth look at the visuals and production of the film. The book features, among other things, concept art and interviews with the artistic team that helped create the costumes and sets.
A few final/random thoughts:
-The Sharpe’s mother, who died when the kids were 12 and 14, looked in her portrait to be in her 70s at least. How does that timeline add up? Did she have her kids in her late 50s?
-How are there constantly leaves falling through the gaping hole in the roof if there are no trees nearby?
-How is everyone in Allerdale Hall not dying of hypothermia?